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WASHINGTON - A top BP executive has acknowledged that the company withheld key documents last year from lawmakers who were investigating whether cost-cutting measures were a factor in the pipeline corrosion that caused Alaska's largest onshore oil spill.
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In a letter that congressional Democrats disclosed on Wednesday, BP America Chairman and President Robert Malone also said that he was "troubled" by the extent of oilfield workers' frustrations in the period leading up to last year's North Slope oil spill.
Malone, who took over at BP America after the March 2006 spill in the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, said, "We need time to determine how the concerns and frustrations expressed by workers were ultimately resolved."
His letter, dated Monday, was released as leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed to postpone a hearing on the Alaska oil spill until May 16.
Malone asked for more time to prepare for the hearing after facing new questions from committee leaders suggesting that company scrimping might have compromised testing and maintenance that could have prevented the 201,000-gallon spill. Subsequent inspections turned up corrosion in another transit pipeline, leading to a partial shutdown of the field in August.
In his plea for more time, Malone echoed some of the committee's concerns, saying some of BP's recently produced records "raise concerns about previous spending decisions that cause me concern."
In keeping with Malone's efforts to portray a new culture of openness at BP, he said that company officials failed to disclose a 2002 state compliance order referring to pipeline sediments that could have contributed to pitting and corrosion.
Malone said the document only recently came to his attention and that of the head of BP Alaska. It also wasn't disclosed to the energy committee during a hearing in September.
While Malone said he's ordered an investigation, some company officials have determined that the document was overlooked because it pertained to leak detection and not specifically to corrosion.
But the connection became clearer as company officials amassed some 20 million documents in connection with congressional and other federal investigations into the spill and subsequent oil disruptions in the nation's top-producing oil field.
"Our process for gathering and producing documents for the committee was not what it should have been," said BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell.
It was during this same time frame, he indicated, that worker frustrations were vented - apparently to no avail. That, he said, will change.
"I want to eliminate the frustration voiced in many of the documents by creating a culture in which workers are confident their concerns will be heard and addressed before they would ever reach the level of frustration expressed in these historical documents," Malone wrote.
Congressional leaders cited Malone's misgivings about the missing documents in their decision to grant the company more time.
"We now know that BP proceeded with cost-cutting measures that may have compromised pipeline safety while earning $22 billion in profits, but what we don't know is why," said Energy Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich.
In a letter co-signed by fellow Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, chairman of the panel's oversight subcommittee, Dingell said, "The discovery of this material has clearly raised questions about the adequacy of your response to the committee, as well as previous spending decisions made by your company."